Selfie with TV Buddha
Selfie with TV Buddha

Last night, I attended an event/talk/performance by Kim Miller, in which she recreated an important (surpassingly important) work by Nam June Paik (the TV Buddha), and read an academic paper about it.  Her stimulating talk had a great deal to do with the idea of narcissism, which has led me, in the spirit of open source, to attempt to extend her ideas by offering the following typology:

  1. Clinical Narcissism: A personality disorder in which a person uses other people as mirrors. People with clinical narcissism are often extraordinarily charming at first acquaintance, but emotionally distant when you get to know them; high achievers whose accomplishments often turn out to be fake. Their biographies often include extremely demanding and distant parents. The extreme cases are incapable giving a honest answer to the question "What are you feeling?" The extreme clinical narcissist simply does not have access to her or his own feelings, and so responds by telling the other person what she or he wants to hear. In other words, the clinical narcissist is always trying to build an attractive self in the emotions and opinions of whoever they are talking to at the moment. Exiled from their own feelings, the clinical narcissist lives the myth of Narcissus trapped in a theatrical role from which there is no escape.

  2. Ordinary (or Airhead) Narcissism: Excessive vanity, self-regard, or concern for one's appearance, and the desire to be the center of attention at all times. This is a common vice that appears throughout human history, whenever there is enough wherewithal for people to indulge. Airhead Narcissism is amplified by technology--first the mirror, now the selfie--and by consumerism. For the airhead narcissist, the myth of Narcissus might be a cautionary tale, but it's all too easily ignored because, well, boring!

  3. Constructive Narcissism: The necessary process of looking at yourself to figure out who you are. Very important in early childhood and adolescence, not to mention art school. It may well be that using the myth of Narcissus, with all its negative connotations, to conceptualize and denominate this process (as Lacan does) is a disservice to this healthy stage of growth, but it also serves as a bracing corrective to certain pieties of personal development. To call it "narcissism" reminds us that to grow we must become self-absorbed, but to become self-absorbed has many perils.

  4. Critical Narcissism: The use, in contemporary art, of the self as subject, or of subjectivity itself as the subject matter of art. With a critical and questioning attitude that's just about as distant as possible from the pathology of the Clinical Narcissist and the vapidity of the Airhead Narcissist, the Critical Narcissist embraces all the negative connotations of the other meanings of narcissism while trying to examine, explore, subvert, and (rarely) celebrate the self. Artists, for the most part, are egotists (who want to impose their vision of the world upon others, however nicely and collaboratively) rather than narcissists (who want everyone to look at me and love me and admire me, whether or not me deserves it), but, like Narcissus, these artists do find their own reflections endlessly fascinating.

Needless to say, the I would classify TV Buddha by Nam June Paik, along with the other artists discussed by Kim last night, as early and exemplary works in the ongoing tradition of Critical Narcissism.

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